Joseph Karl Stieler, Portrait of Beethoven, 1819, oil, Collection Walter Hinrichsen, New York. According to the Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft Bicentennial Edition of "Ludwig Van Beethoven," the composer gave the painter several sittings for this portrait. Many later representations had Stieler's work as their model.
Following this unexpected meeting, Beethoven worked his way back into the family. Still believing Johanna was a bad wife and mother, Ludwig had his very-ill brother sign a document giving him control over his young nephew in the event Karl died. It was an act Karl would have regretted, had he lived.
Johanna could not comprehend why her husband (if he died) would allow their son to live with his mostly unknown uncle. Ludwig, after all, knew nothing about children and needed to keep working.
Things improved professionally, for Beethoven, when his opera Leonore (by then renamed Fidelio) was selected for a performance. Excruciatingly difficult for the tenor soloist to sing, the words focused on peace and freedom. It was a kind of respite following the end of Napoleon's reign.
Although Fidelio made Beethoven the most sought-after composer in Europe, there was no respite for the maestro. His brother's illness, not to mention his own physical ailments, were taking an adverse toll on him.
No longer a brilliant pianist, he sometimes played so loudly the notes were unintelligble. Other times he played so softly, it seemed as though notes were missed. Humiliated by this - when he tried to privately perform with a trio - Beethoven gave up. His inability to hear had eliminated one of his life's joys.
Karl removed another joy when he changed his mind and appointed his wife, Johanna, as young Karl's guardian. By thus amending his Will, he meant to do what was best for his son. Ludwig vehemently disagreed and, after his brother's death, filed custody litigation.
Engaged in a long legal battle, to win sole custody for himself, Beethoven focused less on composing and more on fighting for his nephew.
Yet ... the maestro was not finished. Some of his most extraordinary works were not yet written.
Karl van Beethoven died in 1815. Thereafter, a great deal of Ludwig's emotional life was spent in a custody battle with his sister-in-law. He was forty-five years old when the fight began.
For nearly two years, Beethoven - then Europe's greatest composer - wrote nothing. Directing his attention toward his nine-year-old nephew simply consumed too much time.
Deafness in his ears was not Beethoven's only deafness. He was also deaf to the pleas of others to stop fighting Johanna over the care of her child. He would hear nothing of sharing custody, however. He was completely obsessed with becoming a "father" to young Karl.
The odds were stacked against Johanna. In January of 1816, the Austrian court gave Beethoven sole custody of his nephew. Ludwig seemed the only person happy with the result.
If adults were never able to measure-up to Beethoven's high standards, what chance did Karl have? How could he live-up to the expectations of a perfectionist uncle?
Despite his strong desire to provide the best for Karl, Beethoven could not effectively raise the young boy. He often sought advice from his friend, Nannette Streicher, but some of his actions made the child believe his uncle disapproved of him.
Initially, Beethoven transferred his intensity for creating music to caring for his nephew. He would tell his staff that without Johanna's influence, Karl would be a better man. Yet, he deprived the child from seeing his mother and, when he skipped school to be with her, Beethoven exploded with anger. He did much, in other words, to drive the child away from him.
His staff, in fact, had little appreciation for Beethoven's work and sometimes little regard for the man. Two stories - from Beethoven, A Character Study, by George Alexander Fischer - are interesting:
To illustrate the slight regard his servants had for Beethoven and their absolute ignorance of the value of his work, an incident related by Schindler [the maestro's friend and secretary] about the loss of the manuscript of the Kyrie of the Mass in D is in point. On reaching Doebling in 1821 on his annual summer migration, he missed this work and the most diligent search failed to bring it to light. Finally the cook produced it; she had used the separate sheets for wrapping kitchen utensils. Some of them were torn, but no part was lost. No copy had yet been made, and its loss would have been irreparable. ... and ...
Complaints about servants appear frequently in his correspondence . . . "I have endured much from N. (Nanny) to-day," he writes in a letter to his good friend Madame Streicher, who was very helpful to him in his domestic matters [especially regarding his nephew]. On one occasion, when her conduct became unbearable, he threw books at her head . . . He reports soon after to Madame Streicher, "Miss Nanny is a changed creature since I threw the half dozen books at her head. Possibly, by chance some of their contents may have entered her brain, or her bad heart. At all events we now have a repentant deceiver." (Fischer, Beethoven, A Character Study, pages 184-187.)
Johanna took Ludwig back to court after Karl ran away from Beethoven's home. She argued that her brother-in-law was disregarding her son's best interests.
Forced to abide by legal rules - as he battled for control over his nephew in court - Beethoven composed by breaking rules. During the second custody battle, Beethoven worked on his extremely complicated piano solo, the Hammerklavier. Its music is unrelenting, difficult-to-play and emotionally explosive. One can almost hear its creator's pain.
Yet, when the court battle was over, Johanna lost all control of her son. Karl soon went back to boarding school. He must have wondered, time and again, what all the fighting was about ....
Karl, Ludwig's nephew, attempted to take Schindler's place for a time. That arrangement, however, did not always work out well for Karl. The young man had to endure emotional tirades ... and worse ... from an uncle who, despite not always showing it, loved him deeply.
After such extraordinary turmoil in his young life, Beethoven's nephew Karl bought two pistols and shot himself on the 29th of July, 1826. He did not die and, after the lad was found, he asked for his Mother.
Questioned why he'd tried to end his life, Karl said he could no longer endure his Uncle's efforts to make him a better person. The young man felt tormented and unable to cope with the constant emotional strain.
After spending two months in the hospital, Karl went home with his Uncle. This time, however, Beethoven did not interfere as his nephew planned his own future - a career in the army.
During early December of 1826, after a two-day trip in an open milk cart, Beethoven developed pneumonia. Thereafter, he rarely left his bed. He was afflicted, among other things, with fluid collecting in his body.
Following an operation, to drain some of the fluid from his patient's abdomen, Beethoven's doctor kept the surgical site open (to allow continued drainage). Then ... the wound became infected, causing Beethoven to suffer greatly.
Unable to handle another surgery - he'd had several during his last illness - the maestro grew weaker. Advancing liver disease, and failing kidneys, were ending the life of Europe's most celebrated composer.
On the 14th of March, 1827 - while confronting a fifth operation (without anesthesia, in those days) - he wrote a letter to his friend, Ignaz Moscheles, in London:
Truly, a hard lot has befallen me! Yet I accept the decree of Fate, and continually pray to God to grant that as long as I must endure this death in life, I may be preserved from want. (See Beethoven's Letters, by Ludwig van Beethoven, edited by Alfred Christlieb Kalischer, et al, page 388.)
Knowing he was near death, Beethoven signed a Codicil to his Will which modified how his nephew, Karl, would inherit his uncle's estate. At the time of the signing, Beethoven reportedly said - in Latin - "Applaud my friends. The comedy is over."
By the 24th of March, 1827, Ludwig was in a coma. Two days later, as some of the maestro's closest friends gathered round him, Joseph Teltscher made a drawing of the dying man. At about 5:45 p.m., in the middle of a thunderstorm, he died.
Within hours of his last breath, a Beethoven mythology began to develop. Two days after his death, Beethoven's famously wild hair was considerably thinned-out by souvenir-takers. (A lock of that hair, which ultimately reached a laboratory in California, reveals the maestro had lead poisoning.)
Perhaps because Beethoven himself wanted his family to know what was wrong with him, Dr. Johann Wagner conducted an autopsy. He also opened Beethoven's skull - bits of which have survived all these years - since everyone was curious about the cause of the maestro's deafness.
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